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Trophy Crappie Time in the South

Spring brings hot fishing for giant slab crappies. Learn the top places and tactics to score big.

Trophy Crappie Time in the South

Large crappies congregate in the shallows during the spring spawn, making it easier for anglers using tiny artificials to cash in. (Photo by Frank Sargeant)

Big crappies are where you find ’em,” says Brad Whitehead as he boosts another slab out of the dark waters of northwest Alabama’s Bear Lake. He hooks one after another by dropping a 1/16-ounce jig into brush piles he built himself in 6 feet of water.

Whitehead, who guides all over the region, finds fish concentrations by pushing his spread of jigs very slowly around cover he locates with GPS and sonar. When he hooks the first slab, he drops anchor and asks his clients to be as quiet as possible while they ease their jigs through the cover below. Where there’s one big one there are usually several, Whitehead says. The big females, however, don’t school as tightly as the smaller males, explains the pro.

trophy crappie held up
Most slab crappies find mini soft plastics, like Z-Man’s StingerZ, simply irresistible. (Photo by Frank Sargeant)
THE ZONE

For Whitehead, the place to find jumbo crappies is a magic zone spanning northern Mississippi, northwest Alabama and south-central Tennessee. That’s where conditions are commonly just right for growing extra-large versions of this panfish. The four best-known lakes for big crappies in the nation—Sardis, Grenada, Enid and Arkabutla—are all in northern Mississippi, where slabs approaching the 4-pound mark are caught every spring.

If you need proof of the quality fish those waters produce, consider that the world-record white crappie, a 5-pound- 3-ounce fish, came from below the Enid dam. The even larger world-record black crappie, weighing 5 pounds, 7 ounces, was caught in a pond in south-central Tennessee in 2018.

Bear Lake and nearby (and much larger) Pickwick Lake on the Tennessee River, both in northwest Alabama, are other frequent stops for anglers who love big crappies. But, aside from the popular gold mines of slabs, there are plenty of other great destinations across the Southeast where your chances are very good and crappies are not pressured as heavily. Many of them are capable of producing fish too big to wind up on the dinner plate—behemoths that really belong on your den wall (or simply photographed and posted on social media, if you would rather keep their colossal genes in the population).

WHEN AND WHERE

Across much of the South, the spawning migration begins in mid-February, and lots of fish are on the beds by early March (except in Florida, where the crappies spawn earlier, typically in February). So, early spring is bound to be prime time for trophy-size crappies in the majority of places you might decide to fish.

In most lakes, crappies remain schooled offshore in winter and start to move shoreward as the water temperature climbs above 50 degrees. The smaller males, typically 7 to 10 inches long, arrive in water 2- to 6-feet deep first and stake out their spawning cover, which includes stumps, brush, stake beds, docks, large rocks and weed lines. The adult females arrive soon after.

One of the secrets of catching the largest crappies is to hit them while they’re schooled tightly offshore, just prior to when the big females disperse to brushy shores to spawn. Since the shallows on most lakes warm at different rates, depending on depth, water color, shoreline shade and water flow, the spawn can begin at different times within a single large lake. In general, the upper, shallow end of an impounded lake will have fish spawning before the lower, deeper end.

There’s some indication that crappies, like many other species, tend to spawn most heavily around the new- and full-moon periods, so these are good times to try your luck. For black crappies, check out riprap and chunk-rock shorelines in the bays and feeder arms. For whites, try standing timber, stumps and laydowns where the water has some color. But keep in mind that the clearer the water, the deeper the fish will spawn.




Crappie fishing from a boat
Locating schooling crappies with sonar and pushing a spread of jigs over them is a surefire way to get multiple hookups. (Photo by Frank Sargeant)
PROVEN STRATEGY

Most serious crappie anglers rely on long rods of 12 feet or more and light lines (usually 4- to 6-pound mono) to present their baits and lures in a broad spread around the boat. That lets them cover lots of water on each drift or pass with the trolling motor, plus it increases chances of hitting a school. A small jig or live minnow—on a light-wire hook of size 2 to 6—suspended under a bobber is a good choice to slowly fish over the top of shallow cover.

Otherwise, you have to reel too rapidly to keep your offering from snagging. Of course, long poles also provide an advantage, allowing you to simply lower the bait down to the cover.

When using a bobber, be ready to set the hook at its slightest twitch. But do so with a gentle pull, never an over-the-shoulder heave, since crappies have soft mouths.

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To boost your chances, find bait schools and brushy cover with your side-scan sonar, then fish with conventional, vertical sonar. When it’s tuned right, you will see on the screen where your lure is in relation to the fish.

If you use the trolling motor, keep it at dead-low speed (1 to 2 mph), and don’t run the live well aerator, radio or anything else that makes noise. Be persistent, keep moving, and eventually you will strike slab crappie paydirt.

fishing around docks
Investigate areas surrounding docks, many of which will hold spawning crappies. (Photo by Frank Sargeant)
LURE SELECTION

Any small jig head will do the job. Add a tough tail like the Z-Man StingerZ or Mr. Crappie Grub and you’re in business. A big crappie has no problem wolfing down a 4-inch shiner, an underspin jig with a 3-inch tail or a 2-inch crankbait. If you opt for the latter, choose one that wobbles when retrieved slowly. The Bandit 300 Series and Strike King Slab Hammer are among the best picks.

Should you stick with a jig, use more weight than you might think is needed on windy days, when a slow drift is impossible. If you can’t live with a heavy jig, place a couple split shot 18 inches above the lure to get it down.

Unlike jigging for bass, crappie “jigging” is sort of a misnomer because it basically entails a simple shake of the rod to make the lure shiver and twitch without much moving up, down or sideways. Present the lure just above the fish and they’ll come up and get it.

The fish do seem to have color preferences at times. Some days yellow or chartreuse will out-fish a white or pearl lure; other days they want black or purple. If the bite is slow, it’s smart to offer the fish their choice of several colors in your spread.

SPRING SLAB SANCTUMS

These lakes rank among the elite crappie destinations in the South.

  • LAKE SEMINOLE, GEORGIA/FLORIDA: Lake Seminole boasts 37,500 acres of winding waters that provide ample prime crappie territory, both in terms of size and numbers. Because it’s farther south than many, Seminole turns on earlier, which makes it an excellent place to look for slabs in February. Spring Creek and Fish Pond Drain, two Georgia tributaries, are good starting points. Don’t overlook the Flint and Chattahoochee river arms, both featuring lots of flats with grass beds, stump fields and brushy islands.
  • LAKES GEORGE AND CRESCENT, FLORIDA: Part of the St. Johns River system, these lakes produce jumbo crappies for anglers who know the secret of slow-trolling jigs deep. The trick is to spot fish on sonar and then present a spread of 1/16- to 3/16-ounce jigs of diverse colors and actions just over their heads. Expect the slabs to hang out mostly at depths of 8 to 10 feet until they move to shoreline pads and hydrilla to spawn. Once crappies are in the shallows, dropping minnows vertically is the best bet. Don’t be surprised if an occasional lunker largemouth eats one of the minnows.
  • LAKE WEISS, ALABAMA/GEORGIA: Considered Alabama’s “Crappie Capital,” Weiss is the only lake in the state with a 10-inch-minimum size limit. It’s a shallow and murky, 30,200-acre lake loaded with shad, so the fish here grow fast. The best bite in late winter and early spring occurs along the channel ledges of the submerged Coosa River, primarily around brush and stumps in depths of 10 to 14 feet. Kings Creek and Brushy Branch are both stump laden and good spawning habitat in March.
  • LAKE EUFALA, ALABAMA/GEORGIA: Lake Eufaula spans approximately 45,000 acres and features an abundance of submerged structure, including river channels, creek beds and standing timber. The feeder rivers in particular become prime spawning grounds in March. Moccasin South, Pataula Creek, White Oak Creek, Rood Creek and Grass Creek are known hot spots.
  • LAKES MARION AND MOULTRIE, SOUTH CAROLINA: Also known as the Santee Cooper Lakes, Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie are South Carolina’s premier crappie fisheries, where 2-pound fish are common. Combined, these two lakes cover more than 170,000 acres with plenty of submerged logs and seemingly endless standing timber to probe. Play it safe and stick to the boat trails when on plane.
  • REELFOOT LAKE, TENNESSEE: Located west of Nashville, Reelfoot is a natural, 15,000-acre lake formed by an earthquake in the early 1800s. Spawning crappies here gather around cypress knees and submerged brush, making them relatively easy to find. During the pre-spawn, push a spread of jigs on long poles to pinpoint holding areas. Once you know the fish’s whereabouts, vertical jigging should do the trick.
  • LAKE FORK, TEXAS : A renowned trophy largemouth bass destination full of standing timber and submerged wood, Lake Fork, east of Dallas, also yields lots of really big crappies. The fish stay deep until the spawn, with some of the best action taking place at depths of more than 30 feet. In late March, however, crappies head for the feeder bays to spawn. Top areas include Burch, Running, Glade and Coffee creek arms.

  • This article was featured in the South edition of March 2024’s Game & Fish Magazine. Click to subscribe.

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